Now, project developers will be able to secure clearances in areas around tiger reserves, national parks and sanctuaries, without awaiting the nod of the National Wildlife Board, as the process of securing a forest clearance has been de-linked from the assessment of the impact on wildlife by the board. This will help projects within demarcated eco-sensitive zones and a 10-km range of wildlife zones secure clearances.
Earlier, the Supreme Court had mandated projects within a 10-km radius of wildlife parks and sanctuaries be cleared by the wildlife board, as these could have a deleterious impact on biodiversity. Subsequently, it was made mandatory to secure a wildlife clearance before the impact of the project on forests, in its entirety, was assessed by the government's statutory appraisal body.
This, however, won't be the case anymore. The government has justified the de-linking, saying the two assessments --- on wildlife and forest - fell under two separate laws and weren't legally connected.
From the ministry's notification, it is unclear whether project proponents will be able to cut forests on the project site once they secure the forest clearance but await a nod from the wildlife board.
In a separate notification, the government has given developers of linear projects such as irrigation canals, power lines and highways the permission to cut forests and trees even before the final clearance is secured. They will be allowed to do so as long as they deposit the funds sought, such as those mandated for compensatory afforestation.
In a third dilution, the ministry has done away with the need for the consent of tribals for opening forests to miners seeking to prospect in their traditional lands. Earlier, Business Standard had reported the National Democratic Alliance government was considering doing away with the consent provision for all types of projects.
The Centre has also barred state governments from putting any additional conditions to protect forests or biodiversity in the case of projects the central government has cleared. While giving clearances, the Centre usually puts a number of preconditions on projects. So far, state governments had the power to put additional safeguards in place for specific projects.
In another dilution, the environment ministry has created room to condone cases in which miners don't comply with laid-down conditions. Forest clearances are provided through a two-stage process-in the first, the government gives an in-principle approval, laying down a set of conditions to be met before the final nod is given. Now, the environment ministry has allowed miners who don't meet these compliance conditions for more than five years before the end of their leases to secure approvals.
The ministry has also allowed those who secure clearances to divert lands for road-building and expansion to build right of way for nearby buildings, lands and other facilities, without seeking additional approvals.
Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar has justified the changes and taken credit for clearing projects which, he claims, were held up under the United Progressive Alliance government. Earlier, he had announced a general approval for all defence roads within 100-km aerial distance of the Line of Actual Control. Now, these projects do not require to be assessed for alternative routes or impact by the statutory forest advisory committee.
While a couple of changes to the regulations were announced in July, the rest were put in place in August and September.
Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Javadekar said the proposed dilution of tribal rights over their traditional forestlands was still being discussed in the government and would be disclosed only after a final decision was taken. He added tribals, too, required development, but didn't reply to a question on why his ministry disagreed with its tribal affairs counterpart and wished to do away with tribals' rights over their forestlands.
He termed the changes in the regulations as steps that would continue to improve the health of the forests, as in many cases, land diverted for projects led to compensatory afforestation on twice the area.